Robert Hunter

Several of the Princes of Europe . . . from an Opinion of Advantage to arise by producing all Commodities and Manufactures within their own Dominions, so as to diminish or render useless their Importations, have endeavoured to entice Workmen from other Countries, by high Salaries, Privileges, &c. Many Persons, pretending to be skilled in various great Manufactures, imagining that America must be in Want of them, and that the Congress would probably be dispos’d to imitate the Princes above mentioned, have proposed to go over, on Condition of having their Passages paid, Lands given, Salaries appointed, exclusive Privileges for Terms of years, &c. Such Persons, on reading the Articles of Confederation, will find, that the Congress have no Power committed to them, or Money put into their Hands, for such purposes; and that if any such Encouragement is given, it must be by the Government of some separate State. . . . And when the Governments have been solicited to support such Schemes by Encouragements, in Money, or by imposing Duties on Importation of such Goods, it has been generally refused, on this Principle, that, if the country is ripe for the Manufacture, it may be carried on by private Persons to Advantage; and if not, it is a Folly to think of forcing Nature. Great Establishments of Manufacture require great Numbers of Poor to do the Work for small Wages; those Poor are to be found in Europe, but will not be found in America, till the Lands are all taken up and cultivated, and the Excess of People, who cannot get Land, want Employment. . . .[1]

—Benjamin Franklin, 1782

Who better to open this year’s Ceramics in America volume than a contemporary and supporter of the founders of the American China Manufactory? The story of Bonnin and Morris has many facets. It is a tale of personal entrepreneurship, a record of style and taste in eighteenth-century Philadelphia society, and an account of efforts to achieve at least some measure of independence from reliance on foreign goods. There are those who ultimately regard the Bonnin and Morris story as one of failure, but the fact that, more than two hundred years later, a sizable volume is devoted to their enterprise suggests otherwise.

Gousse Bonnin and George Anthony Morris announced the opening of their factory in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in December 1769. By 1772 it had closed, leaving behind scattered historical accounts and, as of this writing, nineteen surviving examples and numerous archaeological specimens of their soft-paste porcelain. Many American ceramic aficionados feel that the Bonnin and Morris venture is the starting point for chronicling our ceramics history, as making porcelain is considered to be an indication of industrial accomplishment. Indeed, the very term porcelain conjures associations with taste, desire, fantasy, social enlightenment, and cultural refinement. Yet these associations depend on industrial science, economic realities, and—especially in the case of Bonnin and Morris—politics. 

Part of the fascination with Bonnin and Morris is the sheer rarity of surviving examples from their factory. Most of the process of discovery and curation of the known nineteen examples has occurred in the twentieth century, and ownership and/or display of these objects have been equitably distributed among leading American art and history museums. For the devoted cadre of American ceramic collectors, owning a piece of Bonnin and Morris is an impossible dream, and I suspect that winning a state lottery would be more likely than finding an example in a flea market or yard sale, or stumbling upon a misidentified object in the open market. Nonetheless, we all hope that new specimens will surface—that archaeologists will take a closer look at their porcelain finds from sites excavated in the Mid-Atlantic region, for example, or that a reader will be impelled to reexamine that strange piece of great-great-grandmother’s antique china which has resided in the back cupboard for many years. 

The focus of the essays herein ranges from the curatorially elevated mystique of the porcelain made by Bonnin and Morris to the physical and economic constraints of their industrial enterprise. No single approach, however, takes precedence over another. The Bonnin and Morris story was dormant after the demise of the factory, existing as a mere footnote in the history of America ceramics. That changed dramatically in 1972 with the publication of Graham Hood’s Bonnin and Morris of Philadelphia: The First American Porcelain Factory, 1770–1772. Hood’s book was a state-of-the-art exercise in material culture research and remains an essential volume in the libraries of all ceramic scholars. Starting with a group of objects purported to be from the Bonnin and Morris factory, Hood initiated an investigation that brought into play intensive historic research, material science analysis, connoisseurship, and the relatively new discipline of historical archaeology. This approach has stood the test of time and remains a model for all students of American material culture. Accordingly, we have republished Graham Hood’s original work, with the added benefit of color illustrations and some archaeological findings not previously published. 

In 1989 Michael K. Brown contributed additional research to the history of Bonnin and Morris, which was published in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. He summarized information brought to light after the publication of Hood’s book, emphasizing Philadelphia’s political and economic context that facilitated the establishment of the porcelain enterprise. It was logical to include Brown’s original article here, also with the addition of new color photography. Of particular interest is how the public persona of Bonnin and Morris was cloaked in the patriotic fervor prevalent in Philadelphia—and much of colonial America—on the eve of the American Revolution. As a means to generate popular support for domestically made products, a movement necessary to reduce dependence on foreign goods, part of the rhetoric employed by Philadelphia’s leading scientists and philosophers, among them Benjamin Franklin, was a call for the establishment of industrial enterprises.

Glenn Adamson’s view of how the porcelain of Bonnin and Morris might have been perceived by eighteenth-century Philadelphians goes beyond patriotism and economic independence. He argues that the secrets of porcelain making in the Western world were closely linked to the mysticism surrounding alchemy. Alchemy—part philosophy, part chemistry, and part spirituality—sought to discover the “Philospher’s Stone,” a mythical substance capable of transforming base metals into gold. Adamson delves into how these mysteries pervaded Western thought in the early days of porcelain experimentation. He suggests that the metaphysical aspects of porcelain making, at first restricted to the scientific community and intellectual cognoscenti, became a subliminal part of consumer appreciation for the substance produced for Philadelphia’s china tables and bowfats. Bonnin and Morris themselves invoked the “mysterious substance” card in their promotions, although by 1770 the secrets of making soft-paste porcelain were bordering on public knowledge. Nonetheless, as Adamson maintains, Philadelphia consumers willingly accepted the notion that a metaphysical inheritance from the ancient practice of alchemy had been bestowed on their new porcelain factory.

J. Victor Owen takes a more earthly view of porcelain’s secrets. From his perspective as a geologist, he suggests that porcelain and all ceramics are best understood “as synthetic rocks.” While this statement might seem overly pedantic in light of the oft-cited delicate nature of porcelain and the extravagant diatribes lavished on prized porcelain specimens by many a curator, Owen sees this parallel as the most direct way to understanding and classifying the physical and chemical constituents of eighteenth-century soft-paste porcelain bodies. His research is based on a career specializing in the physical analysis of eighteenth-century British and American porcelain factory wares, and his new classification scheme is a landmark departure from previous approaches and should provide porcelain scholars with a more objective basis for interpreting porcelain bodies. 

With both the philosophical milieu of the mysteries surrounding porcelain and the scientific dissection of porcelain formulas firmly established, we turn to artist and ceramicist Michelle Erickson for a visual understanding of how a Bonnin and Morris porcelain object was created. For this project, we selected their most ambitious and complex creation—the pickle stand. Versions of these multicomponent stands had been produced in almost all of the factories in England since the 1750s, so the process of making them was hardly a secret. But it was not public knowledge either. Erickson was given the task of deciphering the vocabulary of the Philadelphia version, to document its construction in a step-by-step process beautifully photographed by Gavin Ashworth. Erickson’s work reveals another, often unacknowledged, ingredient—artistic spirit. Transcending philosophical intent, clay formulas, and construction techniques, this indefinable quality is perhaps one of the most direct links between the consumer and the actual creator. Erickson’s model and the eighteenth-century example made by Philadelphia’s porcelain workers are infused with the artistic spirit of their maker—a spirit that both defines them and distinguishes them.

Logic dictates that Bonnin and Morris were well aware of the potential market for their porcelain. Taking their prototypes directly from early English examples confirms that demand for English products was considerable. Gauging active distribution and use of English porcelain in America, particularly in Philadelphia, however, is surprisingly difficult. In his superb essay “English Porcelain and Colonial America” (1998) ceramic historian Terence Lockett summarized the available documentary and archaeological evidence of the use of English porcelain in America. His research suggested that many American historical archaeologists have not paid much attention to the identification of English porcelain forms, decorative types, and specific factories. With that in mind, Roderick Jellicoe takes up the challenge and demonstrates what can be learned from such detailed analysis using examples excavated in Williamsburg, Virginia. The archaeological ceramic collections at Williamsburg are extensive and many of the English porcelain examples have been discovered in sites dating from the 1750s to the 1770s, enabling us to see firsthand those English products that competed in an American context. It is hoped that Jellicoe’s essay will inspire other researchers to recognize the importance of being able to identify the wares and decorative patterns of individual English porcelain factories.

Archaeology continues to hold great promise for discoveries in the study of both American and English porcelain, and, in fact, possibilities remain for further exploration in the area of the American China Manufactory site. Bonnin and Morris products could also turn up in consumer sites, as discussed in the brief entry by Robert Hunter and Jeffrey Ray. A small, fragmentary waste bowl, once part of a larger tea service, is in the holdings of the Atwater Kent Museum in Philadelphia. This small bowl, recovered from the fill of a privy in 1980 in the course of an archaeological project, provides an interesting contrast to the wares that now reside in museum collections. Its numerous firing flaws confirm that less-than-perfect examples of Bonnin and Morris products made their way into the market as seconds. 

Antique dealers Diana and J. Garrison Stradling are names that are almost synonymous with Bonnin and Morris, as they have been responsible for the acquisition and disposition of several objects from the Philadelphia factory in the late twentieth century. In 1989 an intriguing porcelain openwork basket came up for auction that was inscribed on its base: “PHILADELFIA / the 23 April 1773/4.7.” Although it had many of the characteristics associated with a Bonnin and Morris product, the inscribed date was after they had closed their factory. The authors comment on this important yet enigmatic basket, which now resides in the Colonial Williamsburg collection. Significantly, the basket is illustrated in its “as found” condition, important documentation in the life history of the object. The Stradlings’ research confirms that when the historical record is mute, objects sometimes can speak for themselves. 

As most good ones do, the Bonnin and Morris story has a dramatic twist. It has long been accepted that the American China Manufactory was the first in America to produce porcelain commercially, a claim supported by the lead essays in this journal. Yet a team of authors—Stanley South, Lisa Hudgins, and J. Victor Owen—presents new evidence to the contrary. America’s porcelain history has always been somewhat ambiguous, beginning as early as the 1730s with the mysterious exploits of Andrew Duché in South Carolina, working with the equally mysterious Cherokee clay. Recent research by W. Ross Ramsay, Judith A. Hansen, and E. Gael Ramsay has demonstrated that, indeed, the Cherokee clay played an important role not only in the history of American porcelain but as a key ingredient in the creation of the first successful English porcelain body. In the mid-1760s an immigrant Staffordshire potter, John Bartlam, established a pottery manufactory in the settlement of Cain Hoy, just outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Bartlam has long been considered America’s first producer of creamware and related earthenwares, but now he can also be credited with the production of soft-paste porcelain possibly as early as 1765, which, of course, precedes Bonnin and Morris. We introduce the circumstances surrounding the discovery of Bartlam’s soft-paste porcelain and an initial analysis to the readers in this volume, but much more research is in the offing. 
Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley has compiled a catalogue raisonné of the nineteen intact examples of Bonnin and Morris ware, with a wealth of information about the factory’s technology, history, and aesthetics. A major aspect of this undertaking was to present all new color photography by Gavin Ashworth in order to establish a photographic database for easy comparison. We thank the many institutions and individuals who allowed us to photograph their objects or who provided new color photography per our specifications. This cataloging effort serves as prologue to an exciting exhibition of these objects scheduled for March 2008 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. For the first time since they were made and fired in the early 1770s, these nineteen objects will be reunited in Philadelphia. The exhibition, curated by Kirtley, will include archaeological specimens and promises to be a landmark event in American ceramic history scholarship. 
In place of her annual tabulation of publications related to all things ceramic, this year Amy C. Earls has assembled references related specifically to the topic of porcelain in America, which will give researchers an easy way to access information not fully touched upon in this volume.

In spite of the seemingly exhaustive research undertaken to date, more evidence will certainly appear, either in documentary form, a newly discovered object, or through an innovative scientific approach to the materials. The now firmly established connection between Charleston and Philadelphia will certainly replace speculation about the importance of these two cities in the story of American porcelain. Bonnin and Morris’s china manufactory is important to both ceramic and economic history. 

There remains, however, one aspect to ceramic history that must not be lost in the more simplistic or romantic notions of America’s small potteries and manufactories. Bonnin and Morris—and the other entrepreneurs of their day—needed more than political and patriotic support to be economically viable. As Benjamin Franklin astutely observed, “great establishments of manufacture, require great numbers of the poor to do the work for small wages” and in its infancy America did not have the number of poor workers necessary for its ceramic industry to achieve operating success—that did not occur for another one hundred years. Today, the Staffordshire ceramic factories are in rapid decline, replaced by manufacturing plants in Asian countries, where, currently, there is a huge supply of cheap labor. And we can assume that one day the Asian ceramic factories will give way to those in another part of the world. When viewing the physical legacy of the American China Manufactory, let us not forget that it is often the nameless, faceless workers—paid little and appreciated less—who are responsible for these objects of great wonderment.

Ceramics in America 2007

  • [1]

    I would like to thank George Miller for suggesting this excerpt from The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, edited by Albert Henry Smyth, 10 vols. (New York: Macmillan Co., 1905–7). The full essay from which this excerpt was taken can be accessed online at The University of Chicago Press, The Founders Constitution, vol. 1, chap. 15, doc. 27: http://press-pubs.uchicago. edu/founders/documents/v1ch15s27.html.